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The Gravedigger's Daughter (2007)

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
Review: The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates. It was a very good read. It was a story of an immigrant family escaping Germany in a refuge boat sailing into New York Harbor in 1936. The family now known as the Schwart’s was last to leave the boat because the mother was giving birth at the time of their arrival to a baby girl they named Rebecca. Anna laid uncomfortably in labor in a cramped cabin on the boat with her husband and two small sons. The two young boys were Herschel and August. After the birth they went on land and took a bus to a small town called Milburn in upstate New York. The father, Jacob Schwart found a small place to live with his family rent free with a job connection included. He was going to be the caretaker of Milburn Township Cemetery. The two young boys were Herschel and August.

The story went on to tell how they survived living in this town and how terrible their lives became. The mother became anxious and sick and Jacob became irritated and insane as the years went on. The two sons had problems making friends and being abused by their father that one day they just ran away. So, Rebecca was the only child left to be brought between her mother’s anxiety and her father’s rage. Then Rebecca went through the most horrible experience no child should go through….

Once Rebecca was old enough to be on her own she jump from a dark past into another abusive relationship that only led her trying to survive with a new baby boy until she had the chance to escape the raging gutter she found herself in once again. She changed her name, took her son and moved around like a gypsy. She didn’t dare to settle in one place in fear of her so called husband/lover would find them.

She had high hopes for her son (Niley) Zack now, to become a great pianists. She did what she could to take care of her son and to look out for their future. She was sweet but not that innocent when talking about her past. She became a whole different person by name, rank and dishonesty..snicker…

She did finally decide to settle down but only out of concern for her son and herself. Like I said she was a nice person but she schemed her way to the very end of the story. However, she found out what lonely felt like……

I enjoyed the novel and recommend it as a great book.
( )
  Juan-banjo | May 31, 2016 |
Huh? It just ends? Oates tortures us for 500 pages and it just ... ends. I wouldn't have read it a all except for book club. Back in the mid 1970s I read a lot of JKO but then I just got tired of her. I won't be reading another (even if my book club selects another of her works). ( )
  BookConcierge | Feb 3, 2016 |
This novel is about irreparable Jewish psychological trauma caused by Holocaust and about anti-semitism, which has no borders.
Most of reviews of this great work fail to notice that ...
I immensely thankful to Joyce Carol Oates for the courage of raising such "uncomfortable" issues. ( )
  PrinceAlexander | Sep 13, 2015 |
Agony to read: descriptions of the hovel that is the Schwarts’ home, the tainted water they are forced to drink, the hard labor of digging and maintaining graves, the parents’ terror of what they left behind mixed with fear of American anti-Semitism, and the humiliation of their unfulfilled lives of deprivation and separateness in Milburn (upstate New York) is disturbing and visceral. Oates’ story of this disintegrating Jewish family compelled me to read on though I wanted to drop this horror and flee. I knew that Jacob’s possessive anger and manic cruelty, and Anna’s emotional collapse and dysfunction and the effects on Rebecca and her two brothers could only lead to a terrifying climax. I had to read on to learn exactly what happens and quickly pass it by without totally absorbing it all… until later.

How Rebecca lives on and the choices she makes, and her extraordinary and often irrational behavior is understandable only in context of her tormented early life. There is no doubt that her strength saved her many times.

By now everyone knows Oates is a master of manipulating words but I wasn’t prepared for my thoughts to be so deeply moved. ( )
1 vote Bookish59 | Nov 27, 2014 |
I am an ardent fan of Joyce Carol Oates, her novel Blonde is among my favorites, so I have to warn that my opinion of this book must be considered with that fandom in mind.

The first thing in this book that really engaged me was a kind of character that I had never encountered in fiction before. I have read a great many novels set during the Holocaust but I have never, until now, met characters who are Jewish, and must live with the burden that brings, but who at the same time derive no comfort from their faith. The parents of Rebecca, the main character of this novel, are ethnically Jewish Germans who flee the country to emigrate to America during Hitler's rise to power. However, prior to the stigma that was forced on them by the Nazis, Rebecca's parents had identified primarily as Germans and had taken their values and worldview from German philosophers. Once in America, the family is marginalized as the other and her parents turn inward to such a dramatic extent that there occurs an explosive event which destroys the family completely. After leaving her family, Rebecca lives for a bit in a kind but suffocating foster home and then lives on her own, working as a chamber maid. She quickly falls into marriage with a man she doesn't really know and has a son. Soon she must leave this husband, and her identity, and strikes out on her own with her son, becoming a gypsy around New York State, until she determines what the proper new identity is and finds a new husband who is kinder, but too happy to live with the artifice Rebecca has made of her life.

I found it quite interesting that in the first section of the book, when Rebecca is a girl and then through the trauma of her first marriage, the story is told from her point of view and the reader is always aware of her thoughts. However, once Rebecca sheds her birth identity and Americanizes even further, to become Hazel Jones, the reader no longer knows what is going on in her head so often and there are multiple points of view brought into the narrative. This technique is an interesting way to highlight the manner in which Rebecca/Hazel has so completely changed herself.

Anyone who is familiar with Oates' work knows that the brief plot outline I have offered doesn't even begin to include all of the threads of this story. There is a brief encounter with a serial killer, examinations of what happens to men who define themselves through a certain kinds of brute manhood when they lose power, the too cozy closeness of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone, and a million other bits an pieces.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thinking about the idea of identity in the United States and to anyone who just wants a really good old fashioned novel that is filled with interesting characters and realistic details. ( )
2 vote elmoelle | Aug 9, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)

At the beginning of Oates's 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence. There's plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca's parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, "a name from the bible," Rebecca tells people. Rebecca's Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past. Oates is a novelistic tracker, following the traces of some character's flight from or toward some ultimate violence with forensic precision. Many of the passages are a lot like a blown-up photo of a bruise—ugly without seeming to have a point. Yet the traumatic pattern of the hunter and the hunted, unfolded in Rebecca/Hazel's lifelong escape, never cripples Hazel: she is liberated, made crafty, deepened by her ultimately successful flight. Like Theodore Dreiser, Oates wears out objections with her characters, drawn in an explosive vernacular. Everything in this book depends on Oates' ability to bring a woman before the reader who is deeply veiled—whose real name is unknown even to herself—and she does it with epic panache.
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Dedication
for my grandmother Blanche Morgenstern,
the "gravedigger's daughter,"

IN MEMORIAM

and for David Ebershoff,
by a circuitous route
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"In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of."
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Book description
Beautiful Hazel Jones and her young son Zach are liked and admired by all they meet — but they inspire curiosity too. Why is Zach forbidden to mention his father, and how did Hazel get the scars on her forehead which she takes such pains to hide? Why do they roam from place to place, settling nowhere and confiding in no one?

Because Hazel Jones wasn't always Hazel Jones. Once she was Rebecca Schwart, the dark-eyed daughter of German asylum seekers who fled to the US to escape the Nazis. Her father, hampered by language and chained by poverty, could only find work as a gravedigger, and Rebecca and her family lived in a hovel on the edge of the cemetery.

Driven mad by subjection to daily humiliation and destitution, Rebecca's father committed a horrific crime which changed the course of her life forever. But can you ever re-invent yourself in the aftermath of murder — or is history destined to repeat itself?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061236837, Paperback)

Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace—on the road to a bittersweet and distinctly “American” triumph.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:33 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Rebecca, the daughter of a German high school teacher who was forced to work as a gravedigger after immigrating to upstate New York, begins a life-changing pilgrimage throughout America in the wake of a prejudice-motivated tragedy.

» see all 6 descriptions

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